New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio answers questions during...

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio answers questions during a hearing on local governments before the Joint Fiscal Committees at the Legislative Office building in Albany. (Jan. 27, 2014) Credit: Philip Kamrass

ALBANY -- New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday made an all-out push for authority to raise taxes on the wealthy to expand prekindergarten, saying he could get 54,000 4-year-olds into the program by September.

De Blasio, a Democrat elected in November, has made prekindergarten expansion a signature issue. But the city needs state permission for de Blasio's plan to hike taxes on those earning more than $500,000. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants to pay for pre-K expansion with $100 million this year in state funds, though Monday he appeared to leave himself some wiggle room on the use of tax hikes.

De Blasio told legislators at a state budget hearing the city's right to "determine its own priorities must be honored in Albany," and that the lack of universal pre-K represented a "crisis of inequality."

Testifying before a joint Senate-Assembly budget committee, de Blasio noted that "there are some who say that Albany shouldn't approve our plan because the state government simply cannot raise any taxes right now. But that is not the debate. We're not asking Albany to raise the state income tax by a single penny to pay for universal pre-K and after-school programs in New York City. We're simply asking Albany to allow New York City to tax itself -- its wealthiest residents -- those making a half-million or more a year."

Later, he and Cuomo held a friendly news conference about New York City hospitals, in which they said the tax-hike issue wouldn't affect their nearly 20-year friendship. Cuomo, a Democrat, wants to earmark $1.5 billion in state funds over the next five years to launch full-day pre-K statewide, an amount de Blasio, fiscal watchdogs and education groups say isn't enough.

Notably, Cuomo Monday stopped short of saying he would absolutely rule out a pre-K expansion plan that included a tax hike.

"My proposal is my proposal and would I be shocked if the [state] Senate or Assembly tried to modify it? No," he said.

In 2011, Cuomo reinstituted the state's "millionaires' tax" -- a surcharge on individuals who earn at least $1 million annually or couples who earn $2 million or more annually -- to help fill a budget deficit.

De Blasio released a plan that outlined how he would get 54,000 children into prekindergarten in the five boroughs by fall. It includes converting about 11,000 slots for half-day kindergarten to full-day, upgrading about 32,000 existing full-day programs that currently don't meet academic standards and adding 11,000 new full-day slots.

De Blasio said the plan would require roughly 2,000 new classrooms and the city Department of Education already has identified nearly 4,000 potentially available classrooms. The program would be free, regardless of household income.

Despite the friendly news conference, Cuomo last week contended even if the state covered pre-K costs, de Blasio would still want to tax the rich for other purposes. Some have questioned whether the mayor would use the revenue to settle union contracts.

Legislators at the hearing picked up on that line of argument. Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) pointed out that the city has more than a $2 billion budget surplus this year and one almost as large next year.

"Given the surpluses, why is a tax increase necessary?" Martins asked.

De Blasio replied the city has 150 open labor contracts and he can't count on the surplus until those contracts are settled.

"We have to resolve this. We don't know what day. We don't know how much we will have to pay," de Blasio said, referring to outstanding contracts.

When Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) asked about his time frame for settling the labor contracts, de Blasio said: "You've gotten to the heart of the matter."

De Blasio said he would try to resolve as many as possible in 2014, promised that the tax hike would expire after five years and predicted that the city then would be on solid enough financial footing to fund pre-K without the tax.

It was unclear how quickly de Blasio would need the state to approve his tax request to meet his September promise. After touring the State Capitol to meet with legislative leaders, he said he assumed the issue would be resolved when the state budget is adopted, which is expected April 1.

But if his request is instead taken up in May or June, "we'll be ready either way," said de Blasio, noting that he's already putting together implementation plans.

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